Caro Meets Music Interview Spoken Word Interview

Chris Redmond: Tongue Fu – Boatbuilding

By | Published on Friday 20 November 2020

In normal times, here at ThisWeek, it would be an unusual thing for us to cover the release of an album, given that our focus has always been on things happening live in London town. So in some ways it’s quite nice that these not-normal times have given me the chance to focus on an upcoming record release by a TW favourite – the excellent Tongue Fu.

For the uninitiated, Tongue Fu create projects mixing spoken word, music, film and improvisation, bringing together poets, novelists, journalists, comics, storytellers and rappers. I spoke to artistic director Chris Redmond to find out more about the album – which is called ‘Boat Building’ – and what else Tongue Fu is up to.

CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from ‘Boat Building’?
CR: It’s a mighty vessel filled with the most wonderful humans, sharing the best of themselves through words and music. It sounds like a sort of broken jazzy sunset sometimes, other times an insomniac brain cracking the sea open, or clubbing the patriarchy ceremoniously with a heavy synth.

It is a mix of multi-voice poems/songs and some solo voyages. We wrote nearly all of the words together through a series of workshops and the music all came out of some group improvisations, so hopefully it hangs together as a whole, thematically, but without venturing into concept album territory. Each piece works on its own merit.

CM: What themes can we expect to be tackled?
CR: The boat is the big metaphor – the means by which we all travel / live / work / create together – how we acknowledge and celebrate difference and build the version of community and society that we wish for.

The album is a reflection of the tumultuous political times that we are navigating, so the individual themes dig into that. It’s micro and macro stuff.

Politically we’re exploring themes of racial injustice, toxic masculinity, the refugee crisis, the climate crisis, but hopefully this is balanced with enough personal story, heart songs and great music that it doesn’t feel like it’s an ‘issues’ album. It’s got soul.

CM: What made you decide to make an album? Is it something you’ve been planning for a long time?
CR: I’ve wanted to make a Tongue Fu album for about ten years. We’ve got a live album, but I wanted this to be more collaborative. I wanted to make something that pushed us all into a creative territory that was more than capturing what we do in the live show, which is all based on improvisation.

I also felt a strong urge to offer up a collective political riposte to these times that have seen a big swing to the right and have resulted in a lot of hurt and polarity. Poetry has always been political, but it’s also an emotional language. I would love it if the album could act as a salve for those who connect with it.

CM: How did you decide what would be on the album?
CR: We had some sessions where groups of us got together and wrote and talked all day. We wrote to a lot of prompts, played with loops and small musical ideas to generate material. This then gradually got distilled into the eleven tracks on the album. The strongest ideas just kind of presented themselves really. It had to feel balanced, thematically, dynamically and also to work as an entire listening project.

CM: Has it been difficult to pull it together in lockdown?
CR: Yes and no. This has been brewing for over three years. Weirdly, lockdown afforded us a bit more space and time in order to finally finish it. We were doing vocal overdubs and edits at our homes early in the year. We were lucky with the timing of the lifting of restrictions so we could get into the studio to mix it and make some videos.

CM: Many of our readers will be Tongue Fu fans, but for those that aren’t so familiar with what you do, can you give us a brief description/history?
CR: Poetry and music are two artforms that have always hung out together. We like to bring an element of risk and collaboration.

Our shows have always run on the rule that we don’t rehearse. It’s a playground for poets, writers, rappers, storytellers and sometimes comedians to come and perform with music that’s improvised on the spot, based on a few prompts from the performer and the audience.

It is joyful and deep, daft and experimental. The musicians are insanely versatile. Their day jobs are playing with pop stars, theatre companies and making music for film and so on. They are fleet footed.

We started in a room above the Betsey Trotwood in Farringdon thirteen years ago. Today we’ve played all sorts from the Southbank and Roundhouse to Glastonbury, Edinburgh Festival, Dublin, Romania, Rio, Johannesburg. It’s been a wonderful journey. We’ve worked with Kae Tempest, Akala, Irvine Welsh, Hollie McNish, Lemn Sissay and many more.

CM: How has Tongue Fu been affected by the pandemic? Have you had to cancel lots of stuff?
CR: Like everyone in the world of performance we watched a year’s worth of gigs evaporate, which was pretty tough initially, but we chose to put all our effort into using the time to finish this record, so when the gigs return – please let them return! – we’d have a whole new chunk of work to go out and play. We were very fortunate to get emergency funding from the Arts Council which has allowed us to keep our heads above water – to keep the boat metaphor afloat!

CM: What plans are you making for Tongue Fu post-COVID? What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
CR: It’s quite hard to plan at the moment. We’re looking into options around live streams as well as live shows. We’ve started Fu Records to release this album. I want to make some more work to release, but quicker. We’ll be doing some more recordings for a series of releases with different poets and musicians – maybe getting back to more improv. We also have a whole Tongue Fu For Kids project which is going to get some love next year. It’s a playful antidote to the seriousness of this album.

CM: Are you holding any events around the release of the album?
CR: We’re doing a listening party/launch on Zoom on Thursday 26 Nov. Tickets start at £1 but there are options for people to pay more and get the album digitally, on vinyl or in book form. Tickets are here.

We’ll be lining up some gigs of some sort early in the new year, when hopefully we can move about a bit more again.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
CR: Sleep first. This album has consumed my life this year. I need to refuel a bit. I had a couple of theatre projects cancelled this year so I’m hoping they resurface at some point. I’ve always got a queue of creative projects lined up in my head shouting ‘ME NEXT!’. I’ve definitely got two books I want to write, but there’s also an album and a new show of my own that’s been nudging me in the ribs for a while. We’ll see which shouts the loudest.

‘Boat Building’ is released on 27 Nov. You can pre-order it in digital and physical formats here.

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